Revisiting the greatest, most significant album of the 2010s on the fifth anniversary of its release
Originally published on 3/15/20.
There is some debate as to what the greatest album of the 2010s is. For many, it’s Kanye West’s magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For some, it’s Beyoncé’s masterpiece Lemonade. For others, it’s either of Frank Ocean’s pair of artistic triumphs Channel Orange and Blonde. But while all those albums are fantastic, important, and influential, the clear winner in my opinion is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Anyone who has heard this album is likely already familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s backstory, but I nonetheless find it necessary to go over it. Born in Compton, California on June 17, 1987, Kendrick Lamar started rapping when he was a teenager, releasing his very first mixtape in 2004 at the age of 16. After its release, he caught the attention of Anthony Tiffith, head of independent label Top Dawg Entertainment, forming a partnership that has endured since. After releasing several more mixtapes on the label – and receiving a co-sign from none other than Lil Wayne himself – Lamar released his first album Section.80 on the label in 2011. Impressively confident and well-formed, Section.80 is a debut album that so many artists can only dream of releasing.
The next year, Lamar rose to fame with the even better good kid, m.A.A.d city. With a tightly-woven concept based on his upbringing around gang violence, the album swiftly blew the doors open for Lamar and effectively cemented him as an exciting new face in hip-hop. good kid, m.A.A.d city received extensive acclaim from both critics and listeners alike for Lamar’s impressive rapping skills, his storytelling abilities and dense lyricism, the weighted themes he explores, and the largely accessible sound influenced heavily by classic West Coast hip-hop. Not long after the album’s release, everyone was waiting with bated breath for Lamar’s next project. Can he top this album? Was this just a fluke? What will the next one even sound like?
Those respective questions were answered on March 15, 2015: Yes, no, and like nothing else.
To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece. It is a magnificent mixture of funk, jazz, soul, and even spoken word, filled to the brim with live instrumentation, well-written lyrics, and imaginative, unpredictable musical arrangements. When it was released back in 2015, it was met with immediate and near-unanimous praise. It was named the best album of the year by dozens of publications. Countless thinkpieces were written about it. A few teachers in the States even went on to center entire classes around the album. Clearly Kendrick Lamar had released something truly, truly special.
In 2020, To Pimp a Butterfly still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did five years ago, something that will undoubtedly continue for decades to come. (According to Metacritic, it is the 2010s’ most critically acclaimed album, both in terms of Metascore and placement on top ten lists.) From its intricate, creative instrumentals that jumble together various historically black musical genres to its thickly-layered themes of blackness in America and the long, winding road to becoming a better, wiser man, To Pimp a Butterfly hasn’t lost an ounce of its greatness since it came out. It’s hard to believe it’s been five whole years since the world was graced with this masterful record.
While every aspect of this album passes with flying colors, there simply can’t be enough praise given to the instrumentals. From free jazz (“For Free? (Interlude)”), to psychedelic funk (“Wesley’s Theory,” “King Kunta”), to smooth R&B (“These Walls,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”), to boom bap (“The Blacker the Berry”), To Pimp a Butterfly does it all. Working with numerous writers, producers and musicians over the course of two years (including experimental beatmaking legend Flying Lotus and his bass-wielding pal Thundercat), Lamar weaves a tapestry of black music that is nothing short of incredible. Beat switches abound, yet they always feel natural. The way these instrumentals come together and the amount of detail included in them will never cease to amaze me. According to record producer Tony Visconti, who worked with the late David Bowie to craft the legendary artist’s final album Blackstar, one of the main influences for the album was To Pimp a Butterfly, citing its inclusion and blending of multiple musical genres. And if you’re influencing David freaking Bowie, you’re obviously doing something right. (Notably, the recording sessions for To Pimp a Butterfly were so successful and generated so much quality material that Lamar surprise-released a compilation of unused and unfinished tracks in 2016 called untitled unmastered. – and even those were great.)
While its impact on the sound of mainstream hip-hop hasn’t been as large as some may have expected – understandable, as only so many rappers as famous as Lamar have a vision this ambitious or a budget this big – that doesn’t dilute To Pimp a Butterfly’s immediate social impact. The uplifting, black positivity-affirming hook of “We gon’ be alright” on the song “Alright” was chanted by Black Lives Matter members all over the country during peaceful protests against police brutality, becoming a resonant anthem for racial equality. Amazingly (or maybe not so amazingly), that same song’s message was misconstrued completely by Fox News commenters; Geraldo Rivera cited it as an example of how “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years,” a ridiculous statement that was later doomed to live forever in infamy after Lamar sampled it on his 2017 album DAMN. And, as mentioned before, some teachers in America have dedicated entire classes to the dissection and analysis of To Pimp a Butterfly in the same way most focus on literary works.
Where good kid, m.A.A.d city followed a mostly-linear storyline about the perils of gang violence and debauchery, To Pimp a Butterfly presents a much more scattered conceptual flow – or at least that’s how it may seem at first. The songs on this album concern various aspects of Lamar’s life, such as racism, depression, finding one’s roots, and the temptation toward hubristic behavior that comes with newfound fame; they all combine to depict, at its core, Lamar’s journey to becoming a better person. All these subjects and more are woven together seamlessly, due in no small part to a poem accompanying several of these songs. Each time Lamar recites this poem, he gets further and further into it while reading the lines he has already covered on previous tracks; whatever line he ends on describes the central theme of the following track.
Then there’s the end of the record, which is simply one of the most genius things to be released on an album in recent years. When Lamar finally gets through the entire poem on the closing track “Mortal Man,” it is revealed that he’s been reading it to none other than Tupac Shakur. No, it’s not an actor who sounds like Tupac; it’s actually him. Not in the moment, of course; Lamar took snippets from an interview that took place in 1994 and thought up his own questions for Tupac to “answer.” He effectively creates the illusion that he and his late idol are in the same room just having a friendly discussion, despite Lamar having been only nine years old when Tupac was murdered. At the end of this conversation, Kendrick reads another poem, which reveals the meaning of the album title: he describes “pimping a butterfly” as using one’s talents for personal gain rather than trying to make a difference in the world, making the whole album beautifully come full circle. But when he finishes the poem and asks Tupac his perspective on it, he’s met with silence; Tupac is gone.
To Pimp a Butterfly is, quite simply, a perfect album, the type of album we only get once or twice every decade. No other record from the 2010s had such an important social and cultural impact (though many have come close). No other record from the 2010s had such gorgeously layered themes presented in such an ingenious way. No other record from the 2010s was this endlessly listenable while being this lengthy. Over the past five years, To Pimp a Butterfly has aged like fine wine, an album that I firmly believe will continue to hold up for the foreseeable future.
Revisit To Pimp a Butterfly on Apple Music or Spotify below.